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The Economist: Digital Africa

Author: J. M. Ledgard
March 17, 2011

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J.M. Ledgard explains how access to internet and technology is rapidly changing Africa.

The front-line in Mogadishu was just beyond the ruined cathedral. You could hear the small-arms fire of the al-Qaeda fighters and the return of heavy machinegun-fire from the sandbagged positions of the African Union troops. But the scene on the sun-washed street in the Hamarweyne district was calm. Women were shopping for fruit and vegetables, and the ciabatta and pasta Mogadishu gained a taste for in its Italian colonial days. A couple of cafés, serving also as electronics shops, were crowded, with people inside making voip phone calls and surfing the internet. Outside on the street boys were fiddling with mobile phones, Nokia and Samsung mostly, but also those fantastical Chinese models you find in poorer countries, nameless, with plastic dragon-like construction, heavy on battery-guzzling features like television tuners. I asked my Somali companion what the boys were up to. He wound down the window and summoned his gunmen to go and ask. The answer came back. “They’re updating their Facebook profiles.”

According to a recent intelligence estimate by a defence contractor, 24% of residents in Mogadishu access the internet at least once a week. This in a city in a state of holy war, too dangerous for foreigners to visit freely, where a quarter of the 1.2m residents live under plastic sheeting, infested, hungry, and reliant on assistance brought in on ships that are liable to be attacked at sea by pirates. Half the population of Mogadishu is under 18. Some of these teenagers end up uploading and downloading ghoulish martyrdom videos and tinkering with websites celebrating the global jihad. But far more spend their time searching for love, following English football teams, reading Somali news sites uncensored by the jihadists, and keeping track of money transfers from relatives abroad. It takes more than violent anarchy to extinguish the desire of the young to stay connected, and to keep up with the contemporaries they see on satellite television.

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